You may be forgiven for being confused about what year it is. It was almost exactly a year ago that we were engaged in a debate about the big banks and how they pass on interest rate changes.
Back then, it was the big four passing on higher interest rate rises than the RBA was dishing out. Now its their — for the moment — refusal to pass on the latest cut.
There’s plenty of ritual in all this. Wayne Swan attacks the banks. The opposition attacks Swan, and suggests that somehow — without precisely saying what — that he should be doing more to force the banks to do the right thing. The proximity of Christmas means that, yet again, the media can invoke Scrooge. The Bankers’ Association runs the same lies about cost of borrowing. Yawn.
As Glenn Dyer noted yesterday, we’re usually missing half the debate. Most of us don’t reduce our mortgage repayments when interest rates fall, so the impacts on demand and areas like retailing are limited (this is the great, overlooked flaw in the arguments of those who believe monetary policy can do the “heavy lifting” of stimulating the Australian economy in the event of another financial crisis). And the media ignores the interests of savers, who stand to lose from falling interest rates.
There’s also the simple reality that the RBA takes into account the willingness of banks to pass on rate cuts or rate rises in its decision-making. If the banks decided not to pass on any of Tuesday’s rate cut, it’ll keep cutting rates until they do, just as it took into account banks lifting rates higher than its own increases in 2010.
Instead, the real impact of the banks’ failure to pass on any cuts is on business lending, which directly affects business activity and employment. But that, too, gets ignored by the media in favour of focusing on household mortgages.
The more frustrating aspect of the debate is that it reprises exactly the issues that Joe Hockey correctly raised in 2010 and which ended up going nowhere — the need for an inquiry into the financial system and a resolution to the basic issue that banks have the role of utilities but are regulated like normal corporations. The government successfully deflected Hockey’s well-timed push for a re-examination of financial sector regulation with a limited set of reforms aimed at improving competition, but nothing that was going to cause the big four to lose any sleep — or any of their super-profits.
In truth, if people end up with the impression that Swan has been somehow remiss in his responsibilities as Treasurer by not being to jawbone the big banks into cutting rates as much as possible, responsibility for that lies with Swan himself. He had the chance to exploit a normally reflexively negative opposition’s readiness to pursue financial regulation reform last year and preferred to ring-fence the banks from serious scrutiny. The big banks remain a protected species.
The government can’t complain when they take advantage of that.